Once upon a time, a night at the orchestra was a rowdy affair, somewhat like rock concerts are today. People talked to each other in the middle of a set, and if you didn’t like the music, you could throw tomatoes at the musicians — which actually makes the orchestra of yore more extreme than your average rock show.
That’s right; classical music lovers were once riotous party animals. Prior to the French Revolution, high-society folks could be found partying it up to symphonic masterpieces played by underpaid musicians while the bourgeoisie shook their fists outside. It was not until the middle class wrested the right to a night at the orchestra that classical music started to take on its more serious form — and that was in deference to the art form, not a manifestation of social snobbery, as Alex Ross explains in The New Yorker (2008).
“The idea of the curated program — of the concert as intellectual journey,” Ross writes, merited a silent audience and paved the way for a new world of sound, from Debussy to Mahler, which depended on it. Clapping between movements disappeared in the 20th century. It was not until the 1950s that a night at the orchestra became the experience it is often perceived to be — stiff, hushed, fancy and fashion-conscious.
Not so stuffy
But if that perception seems out of accord with fun-loving, outdoorsy Breckenridge — which has not one but two orchestras that play a full repertoire of concerts at the Riverwalk Center every summer — that’s because it is. While orchestras around the world are toning down that stiff vibe and reaching out to young people — by pairing Metallica with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra or Kid Rock with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, for example — Breckenridge has long been a place where the Average Joe can listen on his or her own terms.
“You don’t have to wear your ball gown,” said Olivia Grover, marketing director for the Breckenridge Music Festival Orchestra, whose season runs from July 16 to Aug. 17, with opening night taking place July 18. “This is for you — for everybody.”
The National Repertory Orchestra’s summer festival, which is performed by a new contingent of top young musicians each year, opened June 15 and runs through Aug. 2.
Although tomato-throwing isn’t exactly endorsed at either group’s performances, and there are some basic rules of etiquette that are polite to observe, orchestra organizers hope more people will give classical music a try.
“Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to dress up,” Grover said. “But you’re there to hear the music, to be with your family and have a good time and relax.”
For newcomers, she recommended the Breckenridge Music Festival Orchestra’s “Pastorale” concert on Aug. 1, which opens with Beethoven’s well-known composition of the same name, or “Oscar Winners All” on Aug. 3.
Music you know
“People are attracted to what they know,” Grover said. “Beethoven has become one of the most recognizable classical composers of all time. We hear it all the time, whether we know it or not, so it’s bound to trigger some recognition.”
Similarly, the “Oscar Winners All” concert features music from popular movies including “Robin Hood,” “Ben Hur,” “Dr. Zhivago” and others, followed by John Williams’ pieces from “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “E.T.,” “Schindler’s List” and “Harry Potter.”
“Movie music has such a visual quality to it; it’s easy to put a musical story in your head,” Grover said. “That’s why it’s written that way.”
This year’s family concert from the Breckenridge Music Festival is “Inside the Orchestra,” a free concert starting at the kid-friendly hour of 6 p.m. that aims to educate while it entertains. Families sit on the floor, surrounded by the orchestra, for selections from “Star Wars” and other pieces while the conductor and host, Thomas Jenson, introduces kids to the various instruments that make up the orchestra. The family concert is BYOB — bring your own blanket.
Generally, orchestral concerts from the Breckenridge Music Festival range in price from $25 to $40 for adults, $10 for students with ID and $7 for ages 18 and younger, with package and season pricing available.
Classical-curious individuals who are not yet willing to foot that bill can also stop in at the Riverwalk Center during practice. The schedule is posted on the door; it’s casual and there’s no clapping — just walk in and walk out when you’re done. Who knows? You just might discover it’s worth it to scrape up the cash for the full experience after all. If you don’t like it, you can always riot.
Erica Marciniec is a paid writer with the Breckenridge Music Festival.